REPORTING FROM MINAMISOMA, JAPAN -– The Japanese central government warned Thursday that it might soon ban shipments of radioactivity-contaminated rice from a farm area affected by the March accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Officials said they might be driven to take the health measure after a test Wednesday detected excessive levels of the poisonous isotope cesium in rice harvested near the city of Fukushima, a two-hour drive from the stricken atomic plant where explosions have released radioactivity into the air, soil and water.
''We're considering restricting shipments of rice harvested in the Onami area in the city of Fukushima ... and we'll draw a conclusion swiftly,'' Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, the government's top spokesman, said at a news conference.
Japanese farm trade groups and environmental interests were critical of the potential move, calling it excessive and misguided.
Masahiro Yusa, head of the agricultural planning department for the Japan Agricultural Cooperative, a policy-making group for the nation's farmers, said the tainting of one product from a localized area of Fukushima will bias the public against all products from all areas of the prefecture.
"The problem with this decision is that consumers will be more inclined to avoid Fukushima-produced agriculture products on the whole. This decision on the rice will affect farmers across the prefecture," he said.
Wednesday's discovery of radioactive cesium marked the first time that such levels of the isotope have been detected in the national staple since the crisis erupted at the Fukushima nuclear power station, crippled by the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Fujimura said rice containing excessive levels of cesium has not been put on the market so far as it was found in tests conducted before being shipped.
"'I've heard the problem will not become serious,'' he said. He added that the government will continue to make efforts to prevent the spread of unfounded rumors about Japanese products being contaminated by radioactive substances.
But Yusa said the government had given farmers the go-ahead to plant rice in the area where the cesium was found. He said officials had given farmers hope but that the announcement of a possible ban on their product had taken that away.
"After the March 11 disaster, Fukushima farmers have been under a lot of pressure," he said. "But after the first tests, the rice farmers got an OK to grow their crops. After further tests in October, they received the all-clear to harvest their rice."
Then came the announcement Thursday that cesium had been found.
"At the moment, we're getting ready to harvest a big crop of apples in the Fukushima area," Yusa said. "It will make it very hard to sell those. For the future, we will have to rethink ways and strategies to try to get people to buy Fukushima-made produce, and trust in that produce."
Greenpeace officials in Tokyo on Thursday called the government's announcement "a blind action" that might do more harm than good.
"The main problem is that the government is conducting insufficient monitoring of food in Japan," said Jan Vande Putte, a nuclear expert with the organization.
"Their screening system is inadequate. There is a limited number of samples being analyzed. They're taking a rough approach, and the risk is that they will unnecessarily ban a lot of food rather than be precise."
He said government health officials were using unnecessarily complicated and expensive equipment when more simple measures would allow them to test more food.
"In the fishing community, we're asking that every single basket of fish that comes to market should be tested. They can do the same with rice. It's technically possible. You can measure for cesium in a few minutes.
"But for some reason, maybe for bureaucratic reasons, the government is sticking with technical equipment that limits their scope. That's just not smart."
-- John M. Glionna and Tom Miyagawa Coulton
Photo: Bags of contaminated rice are displayed Thursday in a warehouse in Fukushima, Japan. Credit: Jiji Press / AFP